The World Council of Churches has called upon the Israeli government to "implement an open-ended freeze" on all settlement construction and expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem "in preparation for negotiating peace in good faith" in the region - writes Jerry L. Van Marter.
"Even as Israel's own right to exist evokes sympathy and solidarity around the world, its policies of expansion and annexation generate dismay or hostility," the WCC public statement asserts.
The statement - adopted by the church grouping's main governing body, its central committee, towards the end of its recent meeting - also calls on world governments to "distinguish between the legitimate interests of the state of Israel and its illegal settlements"; says an international boycott of settlement products and services is needed and invites WCC member churches "to give moral and practical support to non-violent acts of resistance" to the occupation of Palestinian lands.
Noting that settlement construction beyond Israel's borders, established in 1949, has been going on for more than 40 years, the WCC said the practice "is met with widespread incredulity because it is illegal, unjust, incompatible with peace, and antithetical to the legitimate interests of the state of Israel".
In a 1 September interview with the German Protestant news agency, epd, the WCC's General Secretary-elect, Norwegian Lutheran theologian the Rev Olav Fykse Tveit described the settlement policy of Israel as being "very hard to understand". The settlements are one of the main barriers to lasting peace in the Middle East, he stated.
Tveit, who was elected by the WCC governing body on 27 August to succeed the Rev Samuel Kobia as its General Secretary, said that when he takes office in 2010 he wishes to have contacts with both sides in the conflict.
"Our struggle for the rights of the Palestinians is not anti-Semitic, quite the opposite," said Tveit, who is co-moderator of the core group of the WCC-linked Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum. A resolution of the Middle East issue would also create security for Israel and its Jewish citizens, he stated. "The World Council of Churches has always stressed that Israel needs to exist within internationally recognised borders."
The WCC statement noted that there are currently some 200 settlements with more than 450,000 inhabitants in Occupied Palestinian Territory, with some 2500 new housing units on the drawing board. It also noted that Israel's main ally, the United States, has called for a freeze on new settlement activity as it tries to broker a peace agreement.
Speaking at a 2 September media conference, the Rev Gregor Henderson, a member of the WCC committee that drew up the statement, told journalists it was specifically directed to the issue of Israeli settlements and was not attempting to address the Middle East conflict as a whole.
"The WCC has spoken out on violence on both sides many times," said Henderson. "While we are particularly taking issue with Israeli settlement policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, we stand against the violence whichever way it goes."
As recently as 2005, the WCC governing body asserted, "that churches must not be complicit in illegal activities on occupied territory … and have opportunities to take economic measures that are equitable, transparent and non-violent against these illegal activities and in support of peaceful solutions to the conflict."
While the WCC called for non-violent resistance to the ongoing occupation, the burden for resolution of the conflict falls heavier on Israel, said central committee member the Rev Carmen Lansdowne of the United Church of Canada during the WCC governing body meeting.
"Two sides in conflict doesn't necessarily mean a balance of power," she said in support of the statement. "We have to be careful how we present Palestinian aggression. I'm a pacifist, but when our statements call for more from Israel, it's because they are an occupying power and we have to reflect that."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]